As they arrive in the grandiose glass-and-steel entrance hall of the $55-million leadership academy, past the neatly groomed lawns and rows of newly planted palm trees, the cadres from some of Africa’s most powerful political parties are greeted by a large portrait of Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.
Decades after defeating their colonial enemies, the former liberation parties of southern Africa have no intention of loosening their grip on power. And with help from the Chinese instructors at a new political school in Tanzania, their leaders are mapping strategy and co-ordinating plans to prolong their lengthy rule.
The academy, dubbed the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School in honour of Tanzania’s first president after independence, is a joint project of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the ruling parties of six countries in southern Africa – none of which has lost even a single election in their history after colonialism or white minority rule.
Since its opening last year, the school has spearheaded China’s efforts to spread its ideological influence among the continent’s biggest political parties, and to ensure the perpetuation of their rule.
“We must make sure we are in power,” said Richard Kasesela, a prominent member of Tanzania’s governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, at a conference called the “leading cadres workshop” at the school in June.
“That’s critical,” he told his fellow politicians, as shown in a video posted online. “For this success, liberation movement parties have to continue running [their states]. CCM has to continue running Tanzania for the rest of time, as CPC does.”
He rhymed off the names of the ruling parties in five other countries – South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe – and he noted that elections were approaching in several of them. “We must support each other during election campaigns, during political programs, during development,” he said.
He asked the ruling parties to “focus on Zimbabwe” and provide help to ZANU-PF, the party that has governed Zimbabwe for the past 43 years, as it prepared for an election in August. (Unsurprisingly, ZANU-PF won the election, although opponents accused it of rigging the vote.)
Most of the six African parties have been in power since the 1980s or early 1990s, and some have ruled even longer. Mozambique’s governing party, FRELIMO, has been in power since 1975. Tanzania’s ruling CCM has held power, under different names, since 1964. Several of the parties have veered into authoritarian rule, sometimes using fraud and violence to retain their dominance.
But today they face new challenges from increasingly disillusioned voters. Their liberation credentials are fading, especially as corruption and economic struggles become more widespread. So the six parties have turned for help to China’s Communist Party, which has maintained a state monopoly for an even longer period of time: 74 years, without any elections at all.
For China, the school is an opportunity to promote its political model, to deepen its influence in the developing world – and to compete with the United States and Europe, which have provided their own political training programs in Africa.
Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message to about 120 cadres from the six African parties at the school last year, urging them to “take an active part in the cause of the China-Africa friendship, carry forward and pass on the spirit of China-Africa friendship and co-operation, and contribute to the building of a high-quality China-Africa community with a shared future.”
The students responded with a letter to Mr. Xi, “to express their firm determination to carry forth the China-Africa friendship and deepen co-operation between the two sides,” according to a Chinese media report.
The flag of the Chinese Communist Party, along with the flags of the six African parties, flutters in the breeze at the school’s entrance gate, where two uniformed guards check the credentials of every visitor. Surveillance cameras keep an eye on the 10-hectare site and the 25,000-square-metre complex of buildings, about 45 kilometres from Tanzania’s biggest city, Dar es Salaam.
At conferences and classes at the school, Chinese teachers give lessons in party discipline, recruitment, mass mobilization and propaganda methods, according to media reports and research groups that have studied the school.
It is difficult to verify those reports, since the “course list” link on the school’s website has never functioned. But a Tanzanian student, Faiza Omar, who attended a leadership course at the school this year, told The Globe and Mail that the Chinese instructors heaped praise on the “stability and efficiency” of the centralized one-party political system in China.
Ms. Omar said she enjoyed the school’s facilities and a class taught by a Tanzanian teacher, but she has concerns about the Chinese system. “I’m quite worried that people’s freedom to express themselves and give opinions might be silenced, and that’s not a good thing in a democratic country,” she told The Globe.
“Centralized one-party control could potentially stifle democratic values and the voice of the people.”
Mr. Kasesela, speaking to the workshop in June, said the cadres had learned lessons from China about the need for “coherence” between the ruling parties and their governments.
He also suggested that the school could expand to bring in the ruling parties from other African countries, such as Uganda, where the National Resistance Movement has been in charge since 1986.
Although the school was only opened last year, its history can be traced back to a meeting in Zimbabwe in 2016, when the concept of a Chinese-built political school was approved at a summit of the six ruling parties, who called themselves the Former Liberation Movements of Southern Africa.
At the summit, the parties issued a report, titled “War with the West,” which accused Western governments of trying to overthrow African governments to steal their natural resources. But the report also acknowledged that many African voters are becoming less loyal to the ruling parties than they were in the past. It called for the establishment of a “school of ideology” to instill “tough disciplinary measures” within the parties.
Martha Chiomba, secretary-general of a Tanzanian opposition party, NCCR-Mageuzi, said she is troubled by the collaboration between China and the Tanzanian ruling party at the leadership academy. The school is promoting an authoritarian ideology, borrowed from the Chinese Communist Party, which undermines democratic values in Tanzania, she told The Globe.
The school’s ideology seems to have “traces of the system our ancestors fought against,” she said, referring to colonialism.
With a report from Alexandra Li in Beijing